I have set a goal of visiting at least 10 different states during my US trip. So far, I've made it to three, with plans for six more tentatively in the pipeline. Today I'm going to write about state # 2: Washington State, and its capital Seattle.
The home of Boeing, Amazon, and Microsoft, Seattle is nestled between the Olympia mountains to the west, and the Cascade mountains to the east. A seaport city, the Pugent Sound winds north from the docks to the west up to the Pacific Ocean.
I visited in October, and was promptly informed by my friend Tara that I had arrived just in time. Through the winter months, gloom descends on Seattle in the form of grey clouds and rain. The surrounding mountains act like a bowl, trapping the cloud above the city and robbing it of blue skies until the spring arrives. While I was there, the weather was glorious - brilliant sunny days, with just a hint of a chill breeze. The sunshine and seaside reminded me of my home shores of Sydney, Australia. The people are diverse, and very progressive - further reminders of home.
What I saw of the city itself was beautiful - incredibly clean, spacious, green, and modern. The public transport was extensive and efficient, making it easy to get around. It's also very cheap - just a few dollars gets you from the airport into the city, on an elevated train ride with a great view. Unlike San Francisco, which is grungy and gritty in many places, Seattle is neat and tidy. I'm told that the city was hit hard by the financial crisis, but it's hard to tell from first glances. Having giant technology and aviation companies around probably helps a lot too.
I loved the Pike Place Market. It's a large, undercover bazaar just south of Downtown with buskers, tasty foods, unique fashions, striking heirlooms, and knick-knacks galore. Seattle is the home town of Starbucks, and the original Starbucks shop is still open down on Pike Place Market. It is almost unrecognisable as a Starbucks due to local heritage laws requiring its design to abide with that of the surrounding area. Still, a steady stream of tourists (like me) sidle by, taking photos of the familiar-yet-not coffee shop.
Perhaps the most recognisable structure in Seattle is the Space Needle. Built for the 1962 World Fair, the Needle rises over Downtown Seattle, and features a revolving restaurant up top and de-facto standard souvenir shop in the bottom. Just about every photo you can find advertising Seattle will feature the Needle somewhere, so iconic has it become.
The northern suburb of Fremont had further surprises. Can you guess who this fellow is? (Hint: my original guess was the doomed Captain Smith of the Titanic. Tara laughed a lot. It's not him).
This enormous statue of Lenin, 5 metres tall, and surrounded by flames, stands in front of an ice cream shop in the centre of Fremont. Originally erected half a world away in what is now Slovakia, the statue was spirited away as communism fell in the late 1980's. Destined for the scrapheap, it was purchased by Lewis Carpenter, and imported into the United States. After Mr Carpenter's untimely death in a car accident in 1994, the statue was finally mounted in the Fremont area, whilst the Carpenter family continues to look for a buyer ($250,000 anyone?).
Just south of Belltown are the Salmon Locks, which raise ships up from sea level in the Pugent Sound to the higher waters of Salmon Bay. The locks also feature special "steps" that allow the salmon to continue their migration each year into the Bay to spawn (and also give tourists a nice viewing spot to watch them). An enthusiastic National Parks ranger regaled to us the importance of the salmon in the food chain, as we watched the occasional fish swim by a windowed section of the steps.
The locks are quite fun to watch in operation, as they raise and lower ships. As we left, we noticed this hot-tub boat, full of revelers soaking up the curious attention of the people lining the shore. If nothing else, it certainly was attention grabbing.
There's even Lauren Jackson's basketball jersey on the wall!
Perhaps the most authentic Australian experience I've had in the US so far was at the Kangaroo and Kiwi pub, located just north of the locks in Ballard. Housed in a former library, the pub has rugby playing on the screens, framed cricketing memorabilia on the walls, and "blokes" and "sheilas" proudly on the toilet doors. I had a Matilda lamb burger for lunch, with a ginger beer to wash it down. Just about the only thing out of place was the comically large Fosters that the guy on the table next to us was drinking - I don't think I've ever seen someone go into a pub Down Under and have Fosters.
As the home of Microsoft, Seattle is also home to a Microsoft store. Hilariously enough, it's right opposite a very busy Apple Store in a shopping mall. The Microsoft store is an interesting experience - the place sells phones, PCs, Xboxs, peripherals, and all sorts of other tech bits and pieces. There are videos screens side-by-side ringing the entire store - and the retail assistant proudly told us how they were all controlled from Microsoft's head office in Redmond down the road.
We were invited to try out the Bing It On challenge - a blind experiment where you are presented with search results from either Google or Microsoft's Bing search engine, and you have to choose which one you prefer. Supposedly, most people prefer Bing's results - but we had a tie, followed by a win for Google. Nevertheless, we won two $25 vouchers to spend in the store for taking the challenge. I spent mine on two cute dragon things, whilst Tara spent hers on something more practical: a power board. This was just minutes after I had dropped several hundred dollars on a brand new iPhone 5 in the Apple Store opposite - quite a stark contrast indeed.
Seattle is also home to the University of Washington, the state's preeminent higher education institution. The university is stunningly beautiful - rows upon rows of cherry trees line one plaza, and a spectacular waterfall sits in the middle of another. Powered by the generosity of the technology sector and Microsoft in particular, its computer science school is a powerhouse.
In the library, we found a plaque that honoured individuals and organisations who had given over $10 million or more to the university. There were at least fifty names on the list, representing half a billion dollars of donations in and upon itself. Not counting the multitudes who would have given slightly less than $10 million. This philanthropy is really what sets US universities apart from those anywhere else in the world. Back home, the university itself has to raise money for new buildings and facilities. In the US, new buildings (and even rooms within those buildings) are seemingly always funded by some wealthy donor, alumni, or philanthropist. Allen Centers sit next to Gates Buildings, across from Hewlett-Packard Auditoriums and Wozniak Lounges. The facilities available to students in the best US universities are amazing, and they are made possible by the magnanimous donations made each and every day. There simply isn't the same attitude to giving back home, let alone the same amount of blindingly successful alumni.
In the end, I was sad to leave Seattle (though right now I think the gloom would have me feeling different). It's a lovely city, with fine company, pretty sights, and a comfortably familiar atmosphere. I'd highly recommend a trip there - steering clear of the winter if you can.